Brennan Receives NIH Grant for Sickle Cell Research
Sept. 26, 2012
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – For the first time, Illinois Wesleyan University is the sole recipient
of a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). IWU is the only small liberal
arts institution in Illinois to receive an NIH Academic Research Enhancement Award
in the last two years.
Brian Brennan, assistant professor of chemistry at IWU, will use the $285,189 grant
in the direction of a project that will focus on the identification of molecules that
can lead to new treatments for sickle cell disease. The award will fund research supplies,
a new fluorimeter, and stipends for four students to work with Brennan in the lab
during each of the next three summers. Funding will also allow IWU students to attend
national conferences to present their research findings. "The funding greatly expands
the type of research I can do with students," Brennan said. "The multidisciplinary
approach of this research gives students a unique opportunity to use their chemistry
skills to solve a biological problem."
A debilitating hereditary blood disorder with few treatments, sickle cell disease
is relatively rare in the United States, affecting fewer than 100,000 people, according
to Brennan. In West and Central Africa, however, approximately 25 percent of the population
has the sickle cell trait and one to two percent of all babies are born with a form
of the disease, according to the World Health Organization. The only cure for the
disorder is a bone marrow transplant—a procedure that is not feasible in the parts
of the world where sickle cell disease is largely prevalent, Brennan said. Current
treatments for sickle cell disease typically focus only on relieving the symptoms.
Sickle Cell Hemoglobin
Photo courtesy of: PDB ID:2HBS
Sickle cell disease is caused by a mutation in the gene that codes for hemoglobin,
the oxygen transport protein in the body. Brennan explained that the mutation in hemoglobin
results in the malformation of red blood cells and eventually leads to tissue and
organ damage. "When deprived of adequate oxygen supply, a conformational change enables
the sickle-cell hemoglobin to polymerize into long strands, which misforms the red
blood cell into a sickle-cell shape," he said. The discovery of molecules that bind
to the mutated hemoglobin, thereby preventing strand formation, represents a novel
method for the treatment of the disease.
Brennan, a bio-organic chemist, is especially interested in studying disorders that
large pharmaceutical firms have all but ignored. "My training in graduate school largely
involved developing methods to inhibit protein-protein interactions,"
Brennan said. "Because sickle cell disease is caused by interactions of hemoglobin,
a protein, it seemed like a perfect fit for my research." Brennan said the disease's
relative rarity in the U.S. offers little financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies
to focus attention on sickle cell disease.
The three-year award is supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive
And Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15DK098109.
Contact: Kim Hill, (309) 556-3960